Weekly Roundup: Week of Aug. 15

TRENTON – Motorists commuting to New York City, brace yourselves.

Gov. Chris Christie this week gave his OK to a scaled-down toll hike that was then approved by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey early Friday.

While not thrilled about the smaller-than-originally-proposed hike, the governor stressed the need to be realistic and address the infrastructure improvements on the George Washington Bridge and the rebuilding of the World Trade Center.

He stressed that it is not a tax, but a “user fee.”

The scaled-down increase, which he jointly proposed with New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo via letter to the port authority’s David Samson, calls for an initial $1.50 toll hike, followed by annual 75-cent hikes over a four-year period.

The original plan called for a $4 hike right away for EZ Pass drivers who use the Holland and Lincoln tunnels and the George Washington Bridge, among other fee hikes.

Governor’s press-the-flesh tour continues

Much of Christie’s week involved on-the-road bill signing ceremonies at scenic locations that benefit from the freshly signed legislation. After last week’s sun-soaked stops throughout the Jersey Shore, Christie’s stops this week had a lot more green vegetation.

On Monday, Christie signed a bill at a Mount Laurel historic house that allocated funds toward historic preservation.

On Wednesday, he signed $90 million worth of farm preservation bills at the Terhune Orchards in Lawrence.

During each of the stops, the perennial topic of the governor’s presidential aspirations – or lack thereof – arose. On one day, a pundit tweeted that Christie was forming a presidential exploratory committee, a claim that was quickly denied.

This was on the heels of a TV appearance by Karl Rove in which he talked of Christie presidential “vibrations,’ ’ which also drew denials.

Let’s get together

The Local Finance Board of the Department of Community Affairs approved a citizens-led petition to set up a commission to study a possible merger between tiny Merchantville and sprawling Cherry Hill, which is the 14th most populous town out of the state’s 566 municipalities.

One expert in municipal consolidation, Gina Genovese of Courage to Connected, hailed the board approval of creating a commission as “a good first step.”

The merger, if both sides agree it’s cost-effective, could still take years to materialize.

The economic doldrums

The Labor Department hailed the creation of 3,900 private-sector jobs, and pointed out the elimination of 2,100 public-sector jobs. However, as has been the case for so long now, the actual unemployment rate remained stubbornly high and unchanged. For the month of July, the rate remained at 9.5 percent.

While there was some light in the job-creation numbers, the other significant aspect of the economy – housing – remained gloomy.

A Rasmussen survey found a majority of homeowners expected their home values to either remain the same or decrease, even though they believe it’s worth much more than when they bought it.

The pessimistic feelings were compounded by homeowners’ lack of confidence in the foot-dragging federal government.

Environmental politics

The battle between the administration and Democratic lawmakers to control the environmental spotlight continued this week.

A joint Senate/Assembly committee took testimony regarding the governor’s draft Energy Master Plan, giving voice to environmentalists’ criticism of it, including complaints that it does not focus enough on conservation and efficiency.

That same day, the Board of Public Utilities unveiled a $20 million program to promote – wait for it – conservation and efficiency.

The administration’s program aims to combine heat and power generation projects at the state’s largest commercial and industrial facilities, providing incentives of up to $1 million to offset capital costs.

On another environmental front, U.S. Sen. Frank Lautenberg, (D-NJ), and U.S. Rep. Frank Pallone, (D-6) announced plans to update their 2000 law to monitor and maintain coastal water quality.

Foreclosure concerns

An appellate court this week gave permission for major institutions – Bank of America, Citibank, JPMorgan Chase, Wells Fargo and OneWest Bank – to resume processing so-called uncontested mortgage foreclosures in New Jersey.

The process had been suspended for some time, and the institutions will have to cooperate with a special master, but the green light has been given.

The situation stemmed from the “robo-signing’’ concerns in which hundreds of documents are signed, sometimes by someone who can’t vouch for what’s in them. Weekly Roundup: Week of Aug. 15